We are just a few days away from April and a few days closer to the Steelers perhaps drafting another linebacker in the 2011 NFL draft and maybe even two. Now of course there is no guarantee that they draft one, but since Kevin Colbert became the Director of Football Operations with the Steelers in 2000, the Steelers have drafted at least one linebacker in all but two of the Steelers drafts he has overseen and four times in that span, the Steelers have drafted more than one linebacker.
A quick rewind back to last April and you will remember the Steelers actually drafted three linebackers in the form of Jason Worilds, Thaddeus Gibson and Stevenson Sylvester. All three made the Steelers opening day 53 man roster, but Gibson eventually was waived so the Steelers could sign defensive tackle Steve McLendon off of the practice squad because both Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel were both sidelined with injuries. The Steelers were hoping Gibson would clear waivers so they could sign him to the practice squad, but the 49ers quickly snatched Gibson off the waiver wire and the Steelers were out a fourth round draft pick. Worilds and Sylvester contributed heavily on special teams in 2010, but both only received very limited mop-up snaps on the defensive side of the ball late in blow-out wins.
If you look at the Steelers linebacker group heading into the offseason, the entire starting unit of James Harrison, James Farrior, Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley will return in 2011. Woodley was hit with the franchise tag prior to the lockout and the Steelers will likely try to work out a long term deal with him when the labor situation is resolved. Although Farrior is signed through the 2012 season, 2011 could very well be the final season the 36 year old veteran has in the black and gold. Timmons is entering his final year of his rookie contract in 2011 and that will need to be addressed at some point in the near future. Harrison has shown no signs of slowing down, but has had two minor back procedures since the season has ended and that certainly has to be of some concern no matter how minor they may have been. Harrison is under contract through 2014 and if he stays healthy should be able to play out most, if not all of it.
Behind the starting group is where the questions abound. Worilds and Sylvester should be more up to speed in their sophomore seasons, so that takes cares of one outside and one inside spot. It should be noted however that most of the regular season defensive snaps that Sylvester saw in 2010, came at the outside positions. This was likely because of numbers ahead of him as Larry Foote and Keyaron Fox were the primary back-up inside linebackers in 2010 and they just wanted to get Sylvester some snaps to also test his versatility. Fox is now an unrestricted free agent and there is a good chance he will not be re-signed. Foote was brought back in 2010 after a year in Detroit and saw most of his time on defense in goal-line situations and mop-up duty. Foote is still under contract for two more seasons and will turn 31 in June. All signs point to him being back in 2011 on the 53 man roster, but the Steelers could also decide to go younger there as well.
Considering all of the above, it would appear that there is just one open spot for just one linebacker on the 2011 roster, but had the Steelers not waived Gibson, they likely would of carried nine linebackers for all of 2010. One could then argue they might want to get back to that number in 2011. In addition, young linebackers usually can contribute instantly on special teams.
On Tuesday, Colbert and Mike Tomlin were seen getting pretty cozy with Texas defensive end Sam Acho at his pro day. Defensive end you say? Acho projects as 3-4 outside linebacker at the next level and the Steelers absolutely love these types of tweeners as we have seen over the years. Acho was run through quite a bit of linebacker drills and reportedly fared well showing his ability to drop into coverage as that position in a 34 defense calls for as a skill set. Now you can\’t read too much into the coziness as Acho was surely not the only player the Steelers brass were there to see as defensive backs Aaron Williams and Curtis Brown were also on display and either could certainly be on the Steelers radar in the first two rounds. Acho is projected to be a late second round or early third round pick, so the Steelers would likely have to pick him in the second round unless they were to move up higher in the third. That certainly is not out of the question.
Should the Steelers spend a first or second round pick on a linebacker, it would likely cause several of Steeler Nation to jump out of their office windows, no matter what floor they are on. It is however not unthinkable though. The draft is perceived as a deep one for the cornerback and tackle position by most of the scouts and it is not out of the question the Steelers might wait until the mid rounds to address one of those two need areas. The Steelers certainly might not deem both the tackle and cornerback as such the urgent need as the fan base does and most certainly could just go the best player available route as well. Especially if they feel they have a good chance of retaining the services of free agent cornerback Ike Taylor and the yet to be determined guys like Willie Colon and William Gay. The longer the lockout goes on the better the chances it seems.
In closing, the Steelers love linebackers and they play a huge role in the success of the Steelers defense nearly every year. They also covet the tweener types it seems more than most, but as more teams shift to the 34, the greater the demand will be on these types of players. Just because the Steelers starting group is in place, does not mean that they will not continue to reload, especially with the long term status of both Woodley and Timmons up in the air come draft day. It should not surprise you if the Steelers draft one linebacker next month and as I have shown, it should not surprise you if they draft two. It\’s that time of year again. Linebacker drafting time.